11 April 2013

Optimism: The only way to go at work (almost always)


During the panel session I chaired at the recent RCSA PEARL Consultant Forum, one of the conversations turned to the characteristics that are important for a recruiter in today’s economic and recruitment environment. I made the point that, in my experience, only optimistic people succeed at recruitment. Pessimists should never be hired.
 
Why did I say this?
 
Dr Martin Seligman is the world’s leading authority on optimism and happiness. He wrote a ground breaking book Learned Optimism (Knopf, 1991) and followed that up with (amongst others) Authentic Happiness (Random House, 2002).
 
In Authentic Happiness (page 177 & 178) Seligman wrote this about the importance of optimism for achieving high performance:
 
‘The pessimist views bad events as pervasive, permanent and uncontrollable, while an optimist sees them as local, temporary and changeable. Pessimism is maladaptive in most endeavours: Pessimistic life agents sell less and drop out sooner than optimistic agents. Pessimistic undergraduates get lower grades, relative to their SAT scores and past academic record, than optimistic students. Pessimistic swimmers have more substandard times and bounce back from poor efforts worse than optimistic swimmers. Pessimistic pitchers and hitters do worse in close games than optimistic pitchers and hitters. Thus pessimists are losers on many fronts’
 
Optimists are people magnets. People like to be in the company of an optimist. Emotional Intelligence author, Daniel Goleman’s research proves that optimistic leaders more easily retain talented people compared to leaders who more often display negative moods.
 
Optimism and associated good moods create positive feelings about work. Good moods have also been proven to greatly improve people’s speed in; understanding complex information, making effective decisions and thinking more creatively.
 
Optimism builds resilience. Pessimists as more likely to give up sooner or not to try at all, compared to optimists.
 
I was incredibly fortunate to have a pathological optimist as hugely influential boss and mentor for 9 years in my twenties and early thirties. He gave me opportunities before I was ready for them; he never doubted me when things weren’t going so well; he always thought I was capable of more than what I thought I was capable of.
 
Nelson Mandela is often mentioned in surveys of inspiring leaders. To go through all that he did as a prisoner on Robben Island for over 20 years and come out a free man with no apparent diminishment of his belief in the basic good of all people, shows optimism at its most inspiring.
 
There is one caveat to this success of optimists.
 
Dr Seligman shows that in all employment and student groups he surveyed, optimists consistently out-performed pessimists, with one glaring exception - in law.
 
Pessimism is seen as a plus among lawyers, because seeing or anticipating the potential pitfalls in a contract, conversation or transaction, no matter how minor or unlikely, is an important component of a prudent lawyer’s modus operandi.
 
Unfortunately what makes a lawyer good at their profession does not always make them an effective leader, or even a happy human being.
 
Researchers at John Hopkins University in Maryland, USA found that lawyers had the unfortunate ‘honour’ of topping the ‘depression’ list of 104 occupation groups they surveyed.  

More specifically they found that: 
  • Lawyers suffer from depression at a rate 3.6 times higher than for employed persons generally.
  • Lawyers also suffer from alcoholism and illegal drug use at rates far higher than non-lawyers, and
  • The divorce rate among lawyers, especially woman, also appears to be higher than the divorce rate for other professions.
Dr Seligman also states that optimism is even more important for performance at work when the job in question is particularly challenging.
 
Just don’t confuse extraverts with optimists. It’s very easy to be friendly, outgoing, even humourous and still be pessimist. Comedians are notoriously known for their pessimism (ever wonder why so many comedians are ex-lawyers or law undergrads?).
 
How optimistic are you?
 
Footnote: If you want to measure your own level of optimism you can visit the official Authentic Happiness website and for free you can take either the Optimism Test and/or the VIA Survey of Character Strengths (to see where the character strength of Hope, Optimism and Future Mindedness ranks compared with your other 23 strengths).


1 comment:

  1. Well said Ross. In consulting of any type, where you have as just as many wins as losses, you need the ability to get back up on the horse - over and over again!

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